Brexit’s impact on European, UK and Irish unity


Picture of Paul Gillespie
Paul Gillespie

Paul Gillespie is Columnist and leader writer for The Irish Times. Senior Research Fellow adjunct in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin

The day after the Brexit referendum on 23 June, many uncertainties will remain no matter what the result. The question of sovereignty suffuses both sides of the argument, and whoever wins will have to address the outcome in those terms.

The referendum is a blunt instrument demanding a choice between remaining in or leaving the European Union. That in/out dichotomy conceals the ambiguity of sovereignty, which in the interdependent world we inhabit is no longer an absolute concept defined by the indivisibility of authoritative decisions. Sovereignty in practice is shared and divided between different centres of authority. The extent to which that is true varies enormously,but all have to share their decision-making with others in one way or another. This does not compromise sovereignty, but applies and uses it in the international setting and through international institutions. As the political scientist Michael Keating put it, ‘post-sovereignty does not mean the end of all principles of authority. Rather it means that sovereignty is dispersed and divided.’

Looking at the British referendum through this lens helps us understand what is at stake for the UK and the EU. The outcome is genuinely consequential for them both, because in-or-out is a zero-sum decision that will determine their futures for a long time.

In the book I’ve co-edited with Daithi O’Ceallaigh, Britain and Europe: The Endgame, An Irish Perspective, we distinguish four outcomes for the UK’s place in the EU, ranging from ‘Fully-in’ through ‘Half-in’ and ‘Half-out’ to ‘Fully-out’. The Fully-in scenario, which would see the UK joining the euro, Schengen, the Fiscal Compact and other policies, can be ruled out. The Fully-out conclusion, Brexit,involves withdrawal and the negotiation of a bilateral FTA with the EU.

A deepening of eurozone integration will probably trigger another referendum in the UK

A Half-in position would mean that the UK does not join the euro but signs up to as many other EU initiatives as possible, similar to Sweden. Britain would engage actively and positively in the EU and thereby maintain its place at the top table. It could even take the initiative and lead in certain policy areas like security, foreign policy or digitisation. By instead taking theHalf-out position, the UK would step back from European integration and distance itself from the eurozone, while seeking to ensure the integrity of the single market. It would only join the initiatives that matter most to it.

The Half-out position is the most likely to leave Britain’s EU question unresolved, creating a permanently grudging block on the road to deeper integration and probably produce mounting resentment among the UK’s partners. The Half-in position would be much more dynamic and cooperative, including for Ireland, despite the UK’s continuing non-participation in key areas. It would properly accept the argument that sovereignty today must be shared and divided, whereas the Half-out position refuses to concede the point and continually yearns for national sovereignty.

Whether the Half-in position will be the outcome of the referendum campaign is very much an open question. Splits in the Conservative party and close polling indicate this outcome will be very difficult to achieve. And even if it is, a deepening of eurozone integration requiring treaty change will probably trigger another referendum in the UK, as provided for in the 2011 European Union Act. This opens up a ‘neverendum’ prospect with the European issue continuing to divide British opinion.

The Belfast power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland would also be put at risk

From the Brussels point of view, any post-Brexit agreement would likely be very hard-nosed for fear of contagion and setting damaging precedents for EU disintegration. One must assume the likely political victors of a Brexit on the British side would be under great pressure to deliver on reduced immigration as well as continuing trade and access to the EU single market. Those claiming the victory would be English nationalists unreconciled to the post-sovereign world we inhabit and unwilling to compromise with it. But as opponents of Brexit argue in the present campaign, the ‘Leave’ side cannot define what their idea of a‘Fully-out’ position would be. Moving from a Norwegian through a Swiss to a Canadian model of external relations with the EU is to shift from sharing many EU rules with little influence on making them to a much looser set of trade and other links.

A Brexit would have many implications for Ireland. The EU’s political centre of gravity would move east, its likely economic policies would become more state-centrist and in security and defence a weaker EU in global terms would impact Ireland’s own neutral but engaged positions.

Closer to home, the Irish border would become the only land frontier between the UK and the EU, and this possibility threatens the free flow of people and currently buoyant economic relations across the Irish Sea. The Belfast power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, enabled by decades of improving relations between the two states in a European setting, would also be put at risk. The undoubtedly more amicable Irish-British political interaction of recent years has found expression in the EU as an open liberal bloc. This would have to be refashioned after Brexit.

Should Scotland leave the UK after Brexit, a breakup of the UK altogether is likely

Leaving the EU is now widely expected to provoke another Scottish referendum on independence – an internal sovereignty question. Scotland could then also face the same problems as Ireland if it opted to stay in the EU, in that this would necessitate a hard border with England.The recent discussion paper from Kirsty Hughes revealingly debates the implications of that scenario and raises the question of whether a differentiated outcome might suit Scotland, allowing special access to Brussels. Ireland too would be faced with the need to negotiate a special bilateral deal with the UK in order to preserve the many political, economic and human ties that make up their complex and now much more harmonious interdependence. But that would be made much more difficult by the probably far-from-amicable divorce.

Should Scotland leave the UK after Brexit, a breakup of the UK altogether is likely, since a predominantly eurosceptic England with fewer values of solidarity would increasingly resent funding Wales and Northern Ireland. In that case, Irish unity would be put on the political agenda far more quickly than most Irish political elites or voters in the North or South expect or desire. Northern Irish Unionists might even see a federal-type deal with a Dublin inside the EU as better than with a London outside it.

This is a time of constitutional turbulence for Britain and Ireland, and their relations with the EU. It is important in political, policy and theoretical terms to link the analysis of all three dimensions – an approach that is too rarely taken. Looking at them separately, sequentially and in different frameworks is no longer tenable if we want to understand the dynamics affecting all the different issues of sovereignty at play.

In that spirit, a group of academics and researchers from Scotland and Ireland is getting together to develop new inter-disciplinary frameworks for this purpose. They will probe how existing nation-state models of political order are being transformed by trends in global and European integration. They will examine how nationalist political identities and self-determinations are being similarly changed. And they will open up the question of post-sovereignty – where sovereignty does not end but can be shared and divided so as to better accommodate claims of nationality.

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